FILM REVIEW: “De Palma” tracks the 50-year career of a Hollywood maverick

An admiring portrait of the auteur who made "Dressed to Kill," "Carrie," "The Untouchables," and many more

You learn more about the work of director Brian De Palma than you do about the man himself in the new documentary “De Palma.” But one personal quirk turns out to be the most charming revelation in the film. What does the man responsible for some of the most memorable scenes of on-screen violence, in films such as “Dressed to Kill,” “Carrie,” and “The Untouchables,” say when he wants to express disbelief or shock? Does he express himself with blunt profanity? 

No, he says “Holy mackerel!”

More than anything, that quaint phrase speaks to the almost boyish enthusiasm that DePalma brought to his often polarizing filmmaking during his heyday, and which continues to animate his recollections in this love letter of a film by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. Those two, directors in their own right and longtime admirers of De Palma’s, take a simple, straightforward approach, alternating interview footage of De Palma with clips from his films as well as the films of those who inspired him.

Brian De Palma and John Travolta on set of BLOW OUT as seen in DE PALMA.

Brian De Palma and John Travolta on the set of BLOW OUT as seen in DE PALMA.

Foremost among the latter, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock. The documentary opens with a clip from “Vertigo,” accompanied by De Palma’s explanation for why the movie has always resonated with other filmmakers. Scottie Ferguson, the antihero played by James Stewart, does what directors always do: he constructs a dream reality, and then he kills it—twice. That’s an apt description, to be sure, of what De Palma’s Hitchcockian riffs of the 70s and 80s also do. To write him off as a simple imitator, though, has never been fair or accurate.

“De Palma” moves in a pretty direct chronological line, generally avoiding psychoanalysis but allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the impact that his childhood observations of his father’s orthopedic surgical procedure may have had on his tolerance for blood and gore. (The same goes for his awareness of his dad’s infidelity.) De Palma drifted into filmmaking after initially enrolling at Columbia to study physics, but his early, relatively obscure films display an eye for casting—Robert De Niro’s first screen appearance was in De Palma’s 1963 “The Wedding Party.”

After making a couple of scattershot counterculture comedies (“Greetings” and “Hi, Mom!”), De Palma started to hit his stride with the conjoined-twin horror flick “Sisters” and the over-the-top rock musical “Phantom of the Paradise,” which preceded the flamboyance and glam of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” by a couple of years. It’s commendable that Baumbach and Paltrow forego Hollywood gossip-mongering, but it still feels odd that nowhere in the film’s discussion of “Phantom” is cocaine use mentioned at all.

“De Palma” continues dutifully through its subject’s filmography, covering the hits, the biggest being “Mission: Impossible,” and the flops, with De Palma gamely owning up to the debacle of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and marveling at the second life “Scarface” developed through hip-hop culture. Some of the filmmakers who came of age in the 1970s glory days—Spielberg, Scorsese—continue to flourish. Others—Hal Ashby, Michael Cimino, crashed and burned. De Palma ended up somewhere in the middle, still working regularly, despite box-office bombs such as “Mission to Mars” and “The Black Dahlia,” at least until recently.

The two films that “De Palma” made we want to revisit most urgently were “Carrie,” which I may only have seen previously in an edited-for-TV version, and “Casualties of War,” his hard-hitting Vietnam War drama starring the odd couple of Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox (who, unsurprisingly, did not get along during filming). De Palma’s other war film, 2007’s “Redacted” is set during the Gulf War but tackles similarly searing material.

His last movie, 2012’s “Passion,” barely made a ripple, and like his onetime collaborator Paul Schrader, he seems relegated to scraping together budgets from independent and non-American sources. According to IMDb, he has a thriller called “Lights Out” in pre-production, with an anticipated 2017 release. Throughout this engaging panegyric, De Palma exudes so much energy, enthusiasm, and intelligence that it’s a surprise to realize he’s 75 years old. Still, there’s no reason this natural-born filmmaker can’t add a few more titles to his already bountiful legacy.

(107 minutes, rated R, opens Friday, June 24, at the Hollywood Theatre.) 

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